Nexus 5 deep-dive review: Does Google's new flagship phone deliver?

Google's Nexus 5 offers a high-end Android experience at a low unlocked price -- but is it worth owning?

Nexus devices fill an interesting space in the Android ecosystem. They're made with close involvement by Google and designed to showcase the company's unmodified Android software. They get OS updates directly from Google with little to no delay. And they're sold directly from Google, unlocked, at off-contract prices that are practically impossible for most manufacturers to match.

Nexus 5
Nexus 5

It's no wonder, then, that Google's new Nexus 5 slipped into backordered status within minutes of its launch. The Nexus 5 -- built by LG and available now for $349 to $399 (with a three- to five-week shipping delay as of this writing) -- is the first phone to run Google's new Android 4.4 KitKat operating system. And it has the kind of hardware that'd typically cost you a minimum of 600 bucks if you bought it without a carrier subsidy.

(You can, by the way, opt to buy the Nexus 5 in a more traditional carrier-based manner -- Sprint is selling the phone for $50 with a two-year contract and T-Mobile will start selling it later this week for $42 down and a two-year $17/mo. payment plan -- but most users will end up paying significantly less in the long run by buying it unlocked and going with an off-contract setup.)

So, value aside, what's the Nexus 5 like to use in the real world -- and is it an Android phone worth owning? I've been living with the device for more than a week. Here's what I've discovered.

Body and design

The Nexus 5 is actually pretty close in size to last year's Nexus 4 flagship: The phone, at 2.7 x 5.4 x 0.34 in., is just a hair longer and a touch thinner than its predecessor. At a glance, those differences are hard to detect.

What you do notice when holding the device is that the new Nexus feels meaningfully lighter in the hand than its older sibling. Part of that is due to its weight -- the Nexus 5 is 4.6 oz. compared to the Nexus 4's 4.9-oz. frame -- but part of it also relates to the way the phone was designed.

The Nexus 5 leaves behind the glass casing from last year's model and instead goes with a plastic-based body. Between that and the lack of metallic-colored accents, the phone does have a less premium look than the Nexus 4 -- it's not exactly what you'd call a striking device. However, it doesn't seem cheap, just very understated.

The back of the Nexus 5 uses a soft-touch rubberized plastic that's reminiscent of this year's Nexus 7 tablet, all the way down to the vertical etched Nexus logo. Though it's a bit of a finger-grease magnet, the material has a warmer and less slippery feel than the Nexus 4's glass and will presumably also be less fragile and prone to scratching. All in all, the Nexus 5 may be less distinctive-looking than its predecessor, but it's also more comfortable.

Even so, when I hold the two phones side by side, I can't help but think that the Nexus 5 seems less thoughtfully designed than last year's device. While the Nexus 4 is all rounded edges and smooth surfaces, the Nexus 5 has several areas that are surprisingly sharp. Its buttons, for instance -- a volume rocker on its left edge and power button on its right -- are ceramic, which sounds nice enough. But their edges are harsh and feel rough to the touch. The same goes for the prominently raised camera lens on the phone's back, which also has the perplexing effect of preventing the device from laying evenly on a surface.

Then there's the design of the display: While the Nexus 4 had a carefully curved screen that sloped subtly at its sides -- designed to optimize the surface for the horizontal swipe gestures used throughout Android -- the Nexus 5 has a flat screen with a sharp-feeling edge created by the surrounding material. We're talking subtle touches, but the attention to user-experience-focused detail put into the Nexus 4 just isn't as apparent on this new phone.

The Nexus 5 is available in both black and white. In addition to the obvious color differences, the white version has a glossy plastic finish on its perimeter instead of the soft-touch matte material used on the black device.

Display, speaker and ports

Enough about design: Let's get onto the display. The Nexus 5 has a 4.95-in. 1080p IPS LCD display that takes up the majority of its face -- and with a whopping 445 pixels per inch, the Gorilla Glass 3-protected screen is every bit as gorgeous as you'd expect.

The Nexus 5's display is bright with rich and brilliant colors, crisp text and excellent viewing angles -- a huge step up from the comparatively washed out 4.7-in. 720p screen on the Nexus 4. Like with most LCD displays, blacks on the Nexus 5's screen are less deep than what you'll see on an AMOLED-based panel -- but on the other hand, whites are noticeably more pure-looking, and the screen remains easy to see even in direct sunlight, an area where AMOLED screens tend to struggle.

My only beef with the Nexus 5's display is its auto-brightness mode, which has been pretty erratic in my experience. The screen will sometimes ramp up to full brightness for no apparent reason while I'm sitting in a dim room, then dial back down to a more reasonable level a few minutes later. In general, it seems to stay too bright most of the time. Hopefully this is something Google can address in a future software update.

The Nexus 5 has a cut-out earpiece centered above the display and a camera lens to the left of that. The bottom bezel holds a multicolored LED indicator that lights up to alert you of missed calls, new messages and other notifications. You can customize how and when it works by installing a free third-party app called Light Flow.

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